Twelve Step Programs

I received the following email:

Micha, is there a problem going to 12 step programs (either for one’s self, or for/with a friend)?
Does the “higher power’ stuff smack of AZ [avodah zara] in any way?

He then wanted to share my reply, which flattered me into thinking others might be interested in my thoughts on the subject. Here was my reply (slightly enhanced):

No, the “Higher Power stuff” is pretty strict monotheism. The question is joining with people to whom it means something trinitarianism. But R’ Sholom Elyashiv looked into it and permitted, even permitting participating in meetings that use the Lord’s Prayer – and joining them in the prayer! (As it says nothing specifically Christian.) I was told this by a rebbe-chaveir who is a JACS rabbi and whose testimony I trust. But I have no idea the details of the she’eilah, ow the question was posed. E.g. how much risk to life factored into the decision? Would Rav Elyashiv have said the same thing about joining Overeaters Anonymous when the person isn’t near heart-failure type morbid obesity? I don’t know, and personally I would want the question re-asked with that context set forth before accepting the existing pesaq in a case that minor.

My own philosophical problems aren’t about monotheism, it’s founded on Christian notions of needing someone else to save you. (This hearkens back to AA’s origins in the Oxford Group, an evangelical movement, and its six steps.) This stands in stark contrast to the Jewish model of redemption. 12-Step is shot through with this notion of needing to be saved, even down to relying on a sponsor, on perpetually in recovery and never recovered (which itself is setting stakes to low IMHO for pragmatic reasons), etc…

In Yahadus, man owns his own redemption. We daven for help, but we don’t expect the Almighty to do the job for us.  Some relevant dicta:

  • Hakol biYdei Shamayim chutz miYir’as Shamayim — all is in the control of [the One in] heaven, except for the fear/awe of heaven.
  • Bederekh she’adam rotzeh leileikh sham molikhin oso — in the way a person goes, so they take him.
  • Ein davar omeid lifnei haratzon — nothing stands before the will [to do something]. (This is actually phantom maamar chazal, probably an acharonic rephrasing of the previous. Still , it’s a popular quote among numerous acharonim.)
  • Im ein ani li, mi li? — if I am not for myself, who will be for me?

IOW, steps 2 & 3 are within Yahadus (as I understand our religion):

  • We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

#2 clearly so — an addiction is something where by definition we need help, something Rav Dessler would say is beyond our “bekhirah point“. #3, is a little iffy, it depends what “turn our will” means.

But step 7 is really a problem for me:

  • We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Teshuvah is our job, not His. He bedavka wants people who define ourselves, just as He is Autonomous. Otherwise, Hashem would have just made perfect mal’akhim and been done with it.

However, AA allows for some pretty far stretching of the “Higher Power” concept. E.g. the Big Book has an entire chapter on how Agnostics and Atheists can define it.

So, what if a Jew were to decide that the Higher Power that “could remove all the defects of character” didn’t refer to HQBH, but to the beris He struck with us? I think that would address my problem with the basic Christian overtone of the program. It means accepting that the problem isn’t one I can resolve outside of working together with my Creator together in partnership. It’s not relinquishing ownership of my teshuvah to the One in heaven, and yet it’s not trying to go it by relying on my own strength.

If we say that 12-Step programs taken naively defy Hilell’s “im ein ani li, mi li?” this alternative centers on the next clause, “ukeshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani — but when I rely on myself [alone], what am I?”

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  1. Bruce Zuckerman says:

    Your February 24 session on Twelve Step programs was forwarded to me by my spiritual guide with the generous thought that it may be of interest to me, and that I might be able to provide some perspective on the points discussed. Part of my reply to her was that I was not comfortable due to the amount of Hebrew with which I was unfamiliar, as well as my concern that my Mussar is a little “rusty.” She responded that I could still comment, but put forth these two disclaimers. So, I’ve decided to do just that.

    I have been an active member of AA for over 21 years of continuous sobriety. I have chosen to believe there was a divine intervention that graced my life when, without any prior experience, recommendation or interest, one night I went to an AA meeting. I continue to participate in AA and utilize the 12 Steps as part of my life. And I believe that without the path I began in AA, I would never have be on the spiritual journey that I continue today. I was virtually an agnostic when I began, and without hesitation admitted I did not identify myself as Jewish. Today, I proudly identify myself as a Jewish, and albeit slowly, pursue learning about the faith that for so many years I rejected.

    I provide this personal background to simply say the 12 Steps mean many different things to different people. As with any text, be it secular or spiritual, interpretations vary widely. What I say here is nothing more than my interpretation based upon my experiences. I would hope it may have some value to someone else, but that I cannot expect.

    Your discussion of Higher Power was meaningful to me. I must admit I had to Google a few of your Hebrew terms, and then appreciated your use of them! Like many spiritual disciplines and/or religions, AA uses several words to describe “god” throughout its primary text. Although the term Higher Power is not literally used in any of the specific 12 Steps, certainly its use is common within the overall program.
    Many people who come into AA have difficulty hearing ANY use of a deity. However, many feel compelled to stay, by either internal or external forces, because they have accepted the 1st Step, which makes no mention of a deity. And thus begins a path to sobriety for millions of alcoholics. Some discover a Higher Power, some do not. Still, AA is there for them to maintain what is described as our “Primary Purpose” in the Preamble of AA: to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

    I do not regularly focus on literal interpretations of any doctrine, but I would like take a few quotes out of context in the book Alcoholics Anonymous to address several of your comments. I have never been aware of the use of being “saved” within AA. The use of the term “recovered” describes the the change from a “hopeless state of mind and body” but not the disease (which is a term we do use) of alcoholism. In fact, later in the Book the statement “We are not cured of alcoholism” supports why we remain perpetually in recovery. I am aware of few Jewish teachings, but I have read many short daily spiritual lessons using stories wherein King David believed he could trust his life to Hashem when faced with apparently certain defeat or death. Although none of us can truly guarantee what that means, it may not be much different than an alcoholic having faith that his recovery is aided by a power greater than himself.

    I admit the idea of relying upon a sponsor has a connotation of needing to be saved by someone. The concept’s origin was simply to have one individual in AA helping someone who was new to AA get through the early days/weeks of sobriety by utilizing the 12 Steps. It was not promoted as a superior/subordinate relationship, nor was the sponsor ever the recommended “power greater than oneself.” In reality, there are as many different sponsor/sponsee relationships as there are individuals in AA. The recommendation to work with a sponsor remains part of the foundation of common practices that have developed as AA has grown worldwide. Still, I return to the first few words of the text introducing the 12 Steps which “are suggested as a program of recovery.” There is no specific recommendation or definition implying a sponsor being anything more than another alcoholic, and in no literature is it anything more than provided as a tool which can be of assistance in recovery.

    I cannot contest any of the words that are used in Step 7, for they are exactly as you presented them. But, in the text portion which provides some small elaboration on Step 7, a prayer is presented as a suggestion for initial completion of the Step. Within part of that brief prayer it says “I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows” The goal is to become a person who is willing to try to become better able to be of service to god and others. And yes, it does promote asking for help to do that from god. I accept one could argue it sounds passive, and in Step 6 it says to become ready to have god remove all these defects of character again supports an image of something being taken out of us, almost lie a bolt from above. More realistic might be an image of one believing that by becoming willing to improve one’s behavior, one may be granted the grace of spiritual support from a higher power. One saying goes “we think it better to act our way to right thinking, than to think our way to right action.” I think it is also commonly expressed in AA that as humans, what may be perceived as a defect of character may also be a strong personal asset. We try to learn how best to apply them to be of service to god and others. I would say this is not an uncommon duality in many spiritual teachings. There is an all too frequently told joke in AA that goes something like : when you are in a canoe, and the powerful rapids have taken control of your boat, carrying you to certain problems going over a waterfall, you certainly might pray to god for help, but it is highly suggested that you row toward shore! We can ask for help but we must be responsible for taking appropriate actions.

    I thank you for the opportunity to engage in this open forum.

    Bruce Zuckerman

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